The purpose of vacation, of course, is to stop and smell the flowers.
So, if you arrive at Cheval Blanc St-Barth Isle de France and do not inhale the sweet scent of the plumeria that greets you at nose level when you open the car door, you’re not yet ready for vacation.
If you don’t lose your breath at the first sight of the turquoise ocean through the hotel breezeway, get back on the plane. And if your toes don’t curl in the sand the first time you sip a lemongrass-ginger piña colada on Flamands Beach, you might as well go home.
You’re not yet ready to experience this bliss.
Before my inaugural trip to St. Barthélemy in May, I’d read somewhere that the tiny island in the French West Indies is the Monte Carlo of the Caribbean.
That writer was wrong.
Both harbor the world’s most extreme megayachts, sure — so many in St. Barts between Christmas and New Year’s, locals say, that you can’t tell where the lights of the island end and the yachts begin. But Monte Carlo is race-car-and-casino glamorous, cosmopolitan and historic. St. Barts is top down-Jeep-and-bikini laid back, unspoiled, secluded — and young.
St. Barts is an eight-square-mile island built on volcanic rock in the French West Indies.
The first airplane landed in St. Barts just 71 years ago, and tourists didn’t start flocking there until the mid-’70s. Since then, the European capital of the Caribbean has felt the push-pull of a place whose 10,000 residents want to keep it tidy while welcoming the thousands of visitors each year who keep it in business.
It’s a celebrity magnet because it’s expensive and remote, and for both of those reasons, paparazzi generally don’t bother with it. (But not all paparazzi stay away, thankfully, for those of us who enjoy a good Us Weekly splurge now and again. Bold-face names who’ve visited recently include Pippa Middleton, Patrick Dempsey, Cindy Crawford, Leonardo DiCaprio and an entire host of Victoria’s Secret angels descended to earth for a swimwear shoot.)
Those Who Can anchor yachts off shore, rent villas overlooking the ocean or stay in one of the luxe hotels, none of which has more than 70 rooms or so.
Three years ago, French luxury goods conglomerate LVMH (that’s Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) acquired the 22-year-old hotel Isle de France, refurbished it and reopened it in October 2014 as a part of its exclusive Cheval Blanc collection. With just 40 rooms, suites, bungalows and villas opening to the beach or nestled into lush tropical gardens, staying there feels like visiting a friend’s well-appointed beach house.
That is, if your friend is the most gracious host on the planet and employs a staff of impossibly beautiful people who cater to your every whim.
As the chauffeur pulled the BMW X3 into the driveway, two women — looking like Caribbean goddesses in white sundresses — greeted my husband and me with glasses of champagne (love that Moët connection). After a stroll through the magical white breezeway that opens to the ocean, we were left to relax in our room.
LVMH employed British interior designer Bee Osborn to refresh the hotel rooms, and the results are light, airy spaces that look and feel both European-chic and Caribbean laid-back. But this is St. Barts — who stays inside? The highlight of the room was a large balcony that fronted the beach, where later we would eat breakfast, sunbathe and stargaze.
In a place owned by fashion house Louis Vuitton, you’d expect detailing to be impeccable. And it is, in every way.
For example, the resort has a signature scent created by Thierry Wasser of Guerlain.
Called “Tropical Chic,” it’s a proprietary woodsy-floral-mountain breezy fragrance that’s used in toiletries and organic hair-care products by Leonor Greyl. A signature “blush pink” color appears on accents like throw pillows, glass napkin rings and beach towels.
Then there’s the cuisine.
Multicourse dinners at La Case de L’Isle can last two or three hours, and it’s almost insulting not to drink a full bottle of rosé and take a shot of house-made vanilla rum (a St. Barts tradition). Longtime executive chef Yann Vinsot maintains a well-edited menu of French cuisine with a St. Barts twist. The Chilean sea bass marinated with miso, served with sweet ginger puree and shaved pears, was so sumptuous, we each ordered it once. Sea scallops over creamed corn with popcorn placed around the plate was another dish we still dream about.
14 beaches on St. Barts, including Flamands — a quarter-mile of ivory sand and waves ideal for swimming or body surfing.
At breakfast our first morning, a rainstorm turned the ocean shades of gray and blue while we ate from a buffet of pastries, fruit, cheese, cold meats, mini sandwiches and “cakes of the day,” such as pistachio and coconut.
By the afternoon, the sun had come out, and the warm, crystalline waters were calling. St. Barts has 14 beautiful beaches, but Flamands is widely considered the island’s most gorgeous, thanks to its quarter-mile of ivory sand and waves ideal for swimming or body surfing.
Sometimes the measure of a great beach hotel is how inattentive the service is by the water — in other words, how little they nag you while you’re reading, daydreaming or snoozing. This one gets two nicely tanned thumbs up. No one tried to replenish our drinks all day long in hopes of a generous tip. And strangers weren’t peddling seashell necklaces and sarongs up and down the beach.
A toes-in-the-sand lunch at the daytime restaurant, La Cabane de L’Isle, is great fun — and not just because gorgeous women walk table to table modeling designer fashions from the hotel’s boutique.
The lunch menu features refreshing beach-side fare like black truffle burratina with tomatoes and black pork ham, Nicoise salad and a mahi-mahi fish burger. While the seafood, of course, is caught in local waters, not much else is grown or sourced on St. Barts. Most food is imported, which is another reason the island is such an expensive destination.
Staff the resort calls “alchemists” remain ready to arrange anything from a catamaran around the island to off-site dinner reservations at one of St. Barts’ 60-plus restaurants.
A hotel-arranged tour oriented us with the island a few days before we rented our own car. St. Barts is only eight square miles with just one main thoroughfare, but there are no stoplights or street lights, few street signs and GPS doesn’t really exist. So navigating the treacherous hills around the volcanic island can be challenging.
Our guide took extra time in the port of Gustavia, which would be our best chance to absorb the history of the island, do some luxury shopping and spot Hollywood A-listers.
We returned days later on our own and managed our only celebrity sighting: rapper-actor Ice T and his reality-TV-star-wife Coco, pushing a baby carriage into a shoe store a few doors down from Chopard, Cartier and Hermès.
Our tour guide also introduced us to tourists’ favorite pastime — photographing airplane landings. Tiny planes barely scale a mountain before swan-diving down toward a runway just 2,100 feet long that ends within pitching distance of busy St. Jean Beach.
Pilots touch down, slam on the breaks and make a sharp right turn to pull into the terminal. (Surprisingly, it looks scarier from the ground than it felt in our eight-seat Tradewind Aviation plane from San Juan.)
St. Barts was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493 and settled by French colonists from the island of St. Kitts in 1648.
Just as thrilling is underwater exploration in St. Barts. One afternoon, the hotel concierge loaded snorkeling gear into a car, and a driver took us to a hiking path to Colombier Beach.
A 40-minute hike on a rocky trail around a mountain proved to be challenging, but the rewards were many. Not only did we view tropical fish and coral under the water but, along the hiking trail, large turtles and iguanas meandered and scurried in front of us, and wild chickens and goats called in the distance.
High above rugged Colombier Beach, an abandoned house once belonging to David Rockefeller stands sentinel over the island. Rockefeller built the home in the 1950s and is credited with attracting American tourists to the island.
Cheval Blanc St-Barth Isle de France is not one of those mega-resorts with an on-site disco and movie theater. A $20 cab ride is the way to get to famous night life at spots like Le Ti and Nikki Beach.
But for my husband and me, moonlit strolls along the beach followed by dips in the infinity pool were perfectly sublime ways to end each night. Especially when we could come back to the treats left at turn down — robes and slippers by our bed, a nighttime herbal elixir on the nightstand, cleaning cloths under our smudged sunglasses on the dresser and Tropical Chic fragrance on pillows for extra sweet dreams.
Tucked into the lush garden is the luxe Cheval Blanc Spa, the first and only Guerlain spa in the Caribbean.
Unique treatments incorporate signature fragrances of the famous French perfume house. My 50-minute Solar Eclipse massage — designed to refresh skin after being in the sun — used a bronzing oil that smelled so heavenly (Guerlain’s Terracotta Huile du Voyageur), I purchased it, along with the famous Terracotta perfume, which had been diffused through the room during my treatment.
Eventually, my husband and I left our cocoon and explored other parts of the island. There was plenty more to discover — Shell Beach, one of four beaches in the world covered in millions of shells instead of sand; a drive along the Toiny Coast to the “washing machine,” where the Caribbean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean; Gouverneur Beach and Saline Beach, two secluded and beautiful beaches; and St. Jean for shopping and people-watching.
But before we left the island, we found our way back to Flamands Beach. On our way to the airport, we parked our SUV, tossed off our shoes and let the waves roll over our feet one last time. Then we filled water bottles with sand to take home.
Now each time we open a bottle of rosé on our patio, we can re-create our “toes in the sand” experience and remember our St. Barts bliss.
Cheval Blanc St-Barth Isle de France
French West Indies
Rates vary widely by room category and season.
Getting there: We flew American Airlines from DFW to San Juan, Puerto Rico, then took a one-hour flight to the island on Tradewind Aviation. Tip: Sign up for Tradewind’s VIP service so an attendant will meet you at the gate in San Juan, handle passport and ticketing, and porter your bags to the next flight while you relax in the airport lounge.
A note about mosquitoes: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a Zika travel alert for St. Barts while we were there. It has remained on the list of affected countries following reports of local mosquito transmission of the disease. We applied bug spray every time we applied sunscreen during the day and applied it again before bed. The hotel provided a hand-held bug zapper, and we slept with the balcony doors closed. We did not get bitten.